Status Update: Not Much to Update

Well, folks, I’ll own it: seasonal writers’ block is here. Much like Seasonal Affective Disorder, I suffer through a bit of a block around the end of October/beginning of November every year, like clockwork. In the past I relied on lots of light therapy to carry me through, but this year, for some reason, I thought I would be immune. I guess I was falling back on my output being so much higher this year?

Anyway, I was clearly wrong. I’m struggling.

Now keep in mind that my “struggling” still looks like 10,000 words a week, but I need more than that to get through Chapter 25 in anything resembling a timely fashion. I’m back on the light therapy, but I’m not sure how effective it will be over the next few days. So right now I don’t have too much to report past where I was the last time we talked about Chapter 25: working through the first draft. The good news is that it looks to be a relatively short chapter, but I don’t expect to get it finished until December. It sucks, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and not force things. We’ll see where it goes as I ramp up the light therapy. Until then…well, I’m just doing my best. See you Monday.

Status Report: On Skulls and Disappearing Characters

Time for the bi-weekly status report! Work is coming along rather well; as I had hoped, I finally tied the ribbon on the fourth and final draft of Chapter 24 on Tuesday. Thank God. It’s a vitally important chapter (but then again aren’t they all), but it’s also the longest one, or perhaps that’s a result of its importance, I don’t know. Almost 20 pages double-spaced. It took 26 days of real time, or 14 hours of pure, concentrated writing and editing time. By far the longest and most complex of chapters in this iteration of the novel. Not sad to say goodbye, though I will certainly revisit it during the “critique” phase.

Currently in the early phase of the first draft of Chapter 25. This is where I dream up individual pieces and snippets from the planned chapter and write them out in pieces – a quote here, an action there. It usually takes two or three days to get to the point of stitching them together, but once I do, boom! First draft done. That’s scheduled to wrap up on the 4th, but it could be done more quickly, depending on the length of the chapter. Hard to say at this stage, and I don’t have a solid timeframe on how long the chapter will take, though my goal is Thanksgiving, which is somewhat aggressive given how busy my workload will be at the office. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m giving thought to characters and “subplots” that either don’t add anything or never went anywhere as the story evolved. At least two characters will no longer exist by the time this book releases, with a third mentioned in passing only. Just the nature of the beast.

Still, crazy to think that I’m working on the final first draft of Came to Believe. The next first draft will be in service of Lindsay’s novel, which remains unnamed at the moment. Probably some riff on the first one, like “Verb to Noun.” “Stopped to Relieve”.

Anyway, that’s where I am for this week…talk to you again soon and have a Happy Halloween.

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Innocence Found: Purcell Park and Came to Believe

It’s no secret that Stephen King is one of my biggest influences, so I suppose it’s appropriate that he’s made me re-think things. I follow King on Twitter and have been enjoying his tweets about Molly, aka the Thing of Evil. They’ve been great as a fan and, more importantly as an author, in that they made me re-assess my interactions with current and potential readers.

Looking back, this site suffers from the lack of a personal touch. In those rare times where I’ve put the focus on something other than my fiction or the act of writing itself, it’s been to talk about myself in relation to the craft. This includes writing about influences, detailing personal development within the craft itself, and other writing-related topics. I’ve kept you at arms length. Now I’ve never been a “look at me” kind of person, owing to some negative early experiences, and I tend to think that stories should speak for themselves, but I also like to get glimpses into some of my favorite authors’ lives. So, I figured, why not open up a bit, share some things, especially when they intersect with my fiction?

You can expect a blend of slice-of-life and status posts, but I also want to talk about the sights and scenery of the Shenandoah Valley, especially as they relate to locations in Came to Believe and the other forthcoming books in the series. This is not so removed from my personal life as it first appears, as I grew up in the Valley and feel much of its history in my bones; I didn’t appreciate the place growing up, but these days it’s clear just how much it’s shaped and informed my worldview, for better or worse.

This week we’ll start with the very first scene of Came to Believe.

“I said, ‘where are we’?” Her voice had gotten a little higher this time, with a hint of panic at the edges.

 

Answer her, his weak side urged, but still he said nothing. He switched off the headlights and slowed to a crawl, studying the houses that lined the street. The neighborhood backed up to Purcell Park, with its towering oaks, baseball diamonds, and jungle gyms. The park was his destination, and while it might seem suspect to take a teenaged hooker there for business, he had few remaining options for such an encounter.

Here we meet Dean Rohrer, a dentist with a penchant for prostitutes who is taking what is to be his last “pleasure cruise” into Purcell Park, a sprawling blend of multi-purpose fields, picnic shelters, and playgrounds located near the heart of Harrisonburg, Virginia. The park opened in 1954 and is home to a “Kid’s Castle” that was installed sometime in the 80s and was likely part of the reason I went there so often, typically as part of group outings.

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My memories of these outings are somewhat hazy, though they often involved picnics, baseball, and, of course, said Kids Castle. There may also have been a girl involved, but that memory is hazy at best.

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I can’t speak for other kids who used that Castle, but it sure put the fear of tight spaces into my heart. I was never a small kid, in weight or height, so it was always a snug fit at best, “age-appropriate clearance” or not. As a result, I didn’t spend a ton of time in the castle itself. My time was better spent roaming through the emptier back fields and trails, stopping for a softball game here or a baseball game there; mostly, however, I wanted to soak in the isolation of the place. What can I say? I was an only child and used to solitude. I loved to break away from the group and wander through the empty spaces.

This sense of solitude and peace, more than anything else, is what drove me to select Purcell for the book. Sure, I could have gone with Hillandale Park, where I was offered my first cigarettes and most definitely had an encounter or two with a girl, but therein lie the problem: I had imbued the place with such a sense of sleaze over the years that it felt too obvious, too dangerous. I preferred the idea of him “corrupting” a location, as it would also offer the opportunity to “redeem” it in the future.

Ultimately, this is all subjective and down to my personal experience. I’m sure a lot of people had quite different experiences with the park in question, but I needed to operate on this level to get the appropriate emotional tone.

As a footnote, I revisited the place during the early drafting stages. As always, everything looked smaller, especially that Castle, but the memories came flooding back. I was also dismayed to see that things had decayed quite a bit, but there’s a revival underway for the place, which warms my heart. So much of Harrisonburg’s history is vanishing in the name of progress that it’s good to see some preservation efforts. Let’s hope it’s enough.

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Oh, one more thing before I go. On November 7th, I’ll be participating in the Extra Life gaming marathon to raise money for the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital, and your donations are greatly appreciated. I plan to stream at least some of the marathon, where applicable, at http://www.twitch.tv/workingdogv1. I’ll be posting a schedule in the coming days. In the meantime, I’d be ever so grateful if you’re able to donate to the cause. Even $1 will help. You can donate by going to my Extra Life page. If you’re interested in participating, I can also answer any questions you might have and point you in the right direction. Thanks in advance to everyone who helps to make this event a successful one.

Next week I’ll talk a little about Halloween in the Shenandoah Valley; specifically, what that was like when I was growing up. Hope to see you then.

Checking in – Mid-October Edition

So I promised in my most recent entry that I would be checking in with you guys more often, and this is the proof in the pudding. A complete update on where Came to Believe currently stands and where I think we’re going next.

I’m currently working my way through the largest chapter in the book, Chapter 24. This is the penultimate chapter, in which we finally learn Lindsay’s (she’s the protagonist’s love interest but so much more) dark secret and see them reconcile, taking tentative steps toward a relationship. It’s an important chapter, though I’m guilty of thinking that whatever chapter I might be working on is the most important in the novel. Unfortunately it is actually the longest, and is taking the most time to complete (I’m at 25 days with another draft to go, which blows away the next-largest chapter). There’s just no way to break the thing down into coherent chunks, so it’s all at once or nothing, I’m afraid.

I’m hoping to have the fourth draft done by the end of next week, but that may be a pipe dream. That would align me to finish the novel sometime in the second week of November, at which point I start incorporating critique group comments. Once those are done, it’s time to let the book simmer and start the next novel, which features Lindsay as the protagonist. We’ll talk more about that in the coming weeks.

All told, Came to Believe has taken roughly 26 months to complete. Longest time to finish a novel by far, but keep in mind that I’ve written enough material to have a good chunk of the next novel complete, along with a hypothetical future novel that revolves around Dean once again. So the process may end up shortening later works, which would be a godsend. It’s been an interesting journey, transformative to say the least, but I’ll talk about that in the future as well.

For now, we’ll leave it here and see where I am on the 30th. Hopefully I’ll have something good to report. Until then, I’m a squirrel.

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Just Like Starting Over

Happy Wednesday, everybody, hope your week’s going well so far? Mine’s going okay, certainly better than the last few weeks. No sprained knee (well, still sprained, but feeling much better), and no cold. Some allergies, but hey, it’s Spring, and at least it comes along with the annual Springtime energy boost.The rites of Spring, you know: flowering trees, watery eyes, and 10,000 words a week. Or something like that.

Work on Came to Believe is moving along at a much quicker pace these days. Finished Chapter 17 yesterday, which brought the incubation time to a little over two weeks. Sounds slow, but believe me, it’s a major improvement on the debacle of Chapter 16.

So this means that self-edits on Chapter 17 are knocked out and to the critique group. Then the beta readers and editor and so on. I think that means the chapter will have gone through six or seven drafts by the time it reaches your hands? Anyway, we’re all about the rigorous quality control over here, that’s what I’m trying to say. The chapter came out better than expected, as digs into Lindsay’s more awkward (and endearing) qualities and draws the reader closer to understanding her, all the while showing a growing self-awareness in Dean’s head.

Stepped a bit outside the box on this one by doing something I had not done before: for a brief moment I separated the narrator from Dean’s headspace. Here’s the deal: at this point Dean is starting to experience new emotions, but he doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to sort through them or to even begin to put words to what they mean. Normally I’d just refer to them as an amorphous blob that he didn’t understand, but in this chapter his actions are kind of inscrutable without understanding the ambivalence he’s suffering. So I took the risk. I ran the idea (and the paragraphs) by a few people and they thought it worked okay, but we’ll really see if it pays off when I put it to the critique group. I just don’t want to risk the reader losing their connection to the character. We shall see.

Next up is Chapter 18, which I’ve described before, I believe. This is the scene where Dean goes back to Lindsay’s place for the first time and gets his first real glimpse into her day-to-day. I’m looking forward to it, as it’s a  joy to write Lindsay and this is another Lindsay-centric chapter. I’m getting really excited about writing her novel.

Not sure how much of Chapter 18 I’ll get to work on this week, as this is our critique group weekend and there are three sets of pages to which I must attend. No resentment here, though; the process always energizes me and makes me more excited to return to my  work with new insight. Good stuff, always.

 

Really rediscovering my love of writing. I suppose the “love” has always been there, but at times it’s the equivalent of a marriage: stable, happy, and reliable, but sometimes it’s a great deal of work. That sort of love. I’m talking more about the honeymoon phase, the very romance that led me to name this site Shaggin the Muse. Everyday I look forward to spilling  new ideas and emotions onto the page, really digging in and spending time with the characters. I can only credit the time off for illness a few weeks back, but whatever, it’s paid off. I’ve missed this feeling and hope that it can keep going for awhile. Writing  is awesome when you strip it of the desperation and frustration of the business. Sometimes you just need a reminder of the beauty that’s contained within the process, of the transcendent qualities of art, regardless of whether you reach an audience at all. Hopefully it shines through in the final product.

That’s all I have to say for this week. I’ll be back next week with some more information on Chapter 18 and maybe some more information on that Lindsay novel and my vision for the series.

 

Part of the Big Plan

Hey all, yeah, I know, I haven’t updated in about a month, maybe a little over. Sorry about that. The last month has been a total and complete…well, morass would be the more PC term, but I think clusterfuck is more appropriate. Started off with a major work disappointment (though that one looks more like a blessing in disguise as days go on), then a busy schedule for a major release at work, then the dual whammy of a bad cold and a leg injury. As you can imagine, productivity took a dip. Last week was the worst, though; imagine a cold where you only develop the token symptoms of a runny nose and rusty voice but your brain is complete and total fuzz and you just want to sleep 23 hours a day. Then imagine trying to write through that mess. Yeah, didn’t happen so much. Not even work, where writing is a simple recitation of facts and analysis, was possible, let alone hard work where I dig into my emotions and experiences.

All in all, a rather unwelcome series of events, but it may have a silver lining, as I returned to the novel yesterday with a full force that I haven’t experienced in quite some time. Let’s catch up on the status, shall we? I think last time we talked I was nearing the finish line on Chapter 16 and had maybe started Chapter 17. Since then, I’ve finished the first draft of Chapter 17, split its two scenes into two separate chapters (as they were quite different in theme), and both embarked upon and finished the second draft of Chapter 17.

Yesterday was all about re-reading the chapter and identifying opportunities to expand upon the emotional textures and themes. I’m hoping to start that third draft today, but we’ll see. It’s going to be a busy day. I do expect this third draft to be the final version before critique review. Thank goodness this chapter didn’t turn into a morass like Chapter 16. That thing was a nightmare, but also much heavier on the emotional undertones. This is a Lindsay and Dean scene, and like all Lindsay and Dean scenes, something of a joy to write. They have a pretty complicated relationship, but damn if I don’t enjoy every moment that they’re together. Perhaps they’re destined for destruction in the long term, but their personalities work so well in the moment.

I’m hoping that Chapter 18 proves just as easy to write, as it’s a retooling of a scene in the first version of the novel wherein Dean goes to Lindsay’s place for the first time.  In the original version, this scene took place relatively early in the novel and followed their third date, which produced a certain level of sexual tension. In the new version they have never been on a date and it’s following the traumatic events of Chapters 15 and 16. In some ways, it’s actually far more intimate, as both characters have undergone recent traumas and developed a level of trust that didn’t exist at that point in the initial version, but at the same time they’re both very leery of sex. The anxieties and questions hanging between them are very different, but should be fun to work through.

Of course, all this focus on Chapters 17 and 18 meant a delay in the blog entries, and again I do apologize for that, but…I think it showed me what’s important. I’m not going to be writing the big entries like I was before, but I certainly can manage a few hundred words on current progress and where things are headed, if nothing else. Hope everyone has been okay?

In the Frozen Heart

Hey everybody, welcome to the latest blog update. Sorry I’m late, but this week has been even worse than expected, as I lost a beloved pet yesterday. I’ll talk more about that next week, when I hope (HOPE) to get back on schedule.

Quick update on the tooth: looks like we may not salvage it. The dentist who performed the previous root canal completely missed a root, so that thing has been sitting in my jaw like a time bomb since the latter half of 2006. The Big League Chew Incident, as it is now known, may have been incidental, a minor thing to push the tooth into the red. We’re waiting on the results of a CT scan to determine final prognosis, but the endodontist did not sound optimistic. On the positive side, I did learn that there can be some professional beef between endodontists and dentists. Better believe that’s going into the novel.

Have I mentioned that my wife, Mary, is a writer? If not, I should have. She’s been in hibernation for a little while, but decided to “come out of retirement” for a worthy cause. You see, the fan community to which she belongs decided to honor a fallen member by putting together a fanfic compilation and donating the proceeds to cancer research. What better reason to start writing again? She spent a few months hammering out a novella and handed it over  to me last week for editing.

The job ended up being over 100 pages of editing in 4 days, some real record-breaking stuff (Friday night I basically collapsed into bed before I could cross the finish line), but the compilation editors seemed to really like the story and I learned quite a lot. Definitely a worthwhile venture. It’ll be some time before it’s available outside of the collection, but once it is, I’ll link it so you guys can check it out.

This leaves me with little to report on my own novel. The good news is that I’m up and rolling again this week, though I’m having trouble “getting in my reps” with all the other stuff on my plate. Still, hope to have something more to report next week.

Meet Goose

Of course, even with these prolonged absences I can still focus on the novel through this blog, and it’s time to do so once again. So far we’ve discussed the protagonist Dean, his sometime-friend, sometime-lover Lindsay, and Dean’s sponsor, LeRoy. What’s missing? Well, the second-most-important character of the novel: Goose.

So-named for his slick talk (“like goose shit through a tin horn”), he began life in the first draft as a stuffy sponsor named Stephen. Stephen was a point-of-view character who dragged Dean back from the precipice a few times but always came across as uptight and sensible, a real shame as I always intended him to have something more going on under the hood.

Thankfully, shifting the book away from Dean’s first meeting and toward his actual recruiting provided a means to transform Stephen from the stuffy sponsor with years of experience into the broken man who initially walked through the door. In this version he joins the group at the same time as Dean, in a sort of partnership, which establishes a whole different dynamic between the two.

A con-man by nature, Goose’s story begins with his arrest for prostitution on the exact same night that Dean got busted for solicitation. That’s right, Goose is/was a male prostitute.The symmetry makes sense in the context of their respective sexual issues. After Goose’s last arrest, his lawyer, Jim, told him about a special deal that he and a client had struck with a judge: the client got leniency on a solicitation charge by offering to attend sex addiction counseling. Always one to seize on an angle, Goose decided he would play the card during his next arrest.

As he’s waiting for his bond hearing, a local dentist walks in. Well, he doesn’t exactly announce the fact, but Goose recognizes him from his TV ads and figures this gives him a leg up, especially as he’s had a sore tooth for a few weeks. He teases the relatively naive Dean with an offer to help him avoid a permanent spot on his record: his knowledge for free dental work. Desperate and afraid, Dean accepts, and thus enters into a very odd but compelling relationship.

Their partnership is marked by the polar opposite nature of their personalities; where Dean is an uptight elitist, Goose is a little too easy-going and accepting. They’re good for one another, but also generate a lot of friction.

This brings me to the topic of Goose and religion. As you may have read between the lines, Goose is gay and grew up in a very religious, very redneck household. He tells the story of his sexual awakening in the novel and it’s pivotal to the story, so I’m not going to spoil it here, but suffice it to say that he felt “dirty” at a very young age, which made it hard for him to identify with the church. As he grew up the situation only intensified, to the point that his brain formed snap associations between the church and beatings. This ultimately resulted in him feeling a fight-or-flight reaction when any topic of religion came up.

Most of the time he handles it by being bombed out of his mind on drugs, but every now and then the panic surfaces, as it does during their first meeting when everyone stands up and holds hands to pray.

Remember what I said last week about recovery and spirituality being so intertwined? Well, imagine the difficulties that will present for Goose long-term and you get an idea of his central struggle in this novel.

Will he develop his own sense of spirituality outside of the church’s dictates? That’s a question that spans the novels, and while I have a good feeling about it, I can’t say for certain. We’ll all find out together.

Next time we’ll hopefully talk about the people who draw Dean and Stephen into this mess: their attorney, Jim, and his friend Peggy.

Question of the Week

Last week I asked about your personal hero, and really only heard from Aniko, who said that she didn’t have one (I think that’s a valid response). So…not too much to discuss on that front. Moving on to this week’s question:

What do you do to push past the fear of failure?

I get asked this one every now and then by aspiring writer friends: how do I sit down and just keep writing day after day, week after week? I always answer that it’s as complex and as simple as just sitting down and doing it every day, but I think it’s also about confronting and defeating your fear of failure.

Do I mean you’ll never fail again? Oh hell no. I fail on a daily basis, but that’s the thing: I allow myself to do so. Call it “sucking with a purpose” (and your dirty mind can take that where it wants, I know mine did already). I mean, I used to be frozen with fear when I faced the empty page. What if I wrote crap? What if I didn’t have my talent anymore? It could all prove what a faker I was, and that I had no business doing this stuff.

Feels silly now. The response is, so what? It’s not like an axe is going to drop from somewhere and behead me if I misuse “they’re” or my prose is hackneyed. I know this now, and so failure remains just another factor to writing, not the unstoppable wall.

But therein lies the catch, of course: I “know” this. I had to learn it – and I’m not sure how you teach it to someone. My knowledge came from continually pushing my boundaries, but someone else may learn it from constant iteration on an idea that seems terrible at first.

So…yeah. That’s my answer: I face the fear head-on, because I learn new things by doing, not by talking through them.

How about you? What do you do? Any mantras you repeat to yourself? Positive self-talk?

Photo of the Week

Another week, another winter storm, another weekend without photography. I’m aching for it now, but warmer weather is on its way, so I have a prayer of getting out there this weekend.

Seeing as we still have snow on the ground and may still have some right up until the warming trend, I thought I’d share this shot of a snowy field in a spot not too far from Purcellville, Virginia. Can’t recall the name of this “town” (really more of a street), but I found the spot gorgeous. Had to jump out of the car on the side of the road to get this. You’d be surprised how often that works.

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The Shifting Sands

Hey everybody, welcome back! Apologize upfront if this entry seems disjointed, as I got a late start this week due to some edits on Chapter 16, which is taking a lot longer than expected due to shifting narrative priorities.

You see, in the original vision, the chapter started with Dean and some paramedics arguing about what he could do to support his friend following said character’s stroke. Unable to ride along in the ambulance, Dean followed the paramedics to Rockingham Memorial Hospital and found himself stuck in the waiting room. Anxiety and stress mounted, which led to him first downing Ativan, then masturbating in the bathroom in an attempt to ease his nerves. Pretty much what you’d expect for an addict in the throes of mortal terror. A problem arose when a male nurse entered the bathroom just as Dean “finished”, leaving him to clean up in silence. Thinking that he had done a good job, he slipped out and tried to be smooth with the nurse, who acted amused by Dean’s presence. It was only as he exited that Dean noticed a spot of semen on one of his shoes.

This sent Dean into a downward spiral, one only arrested by a call from Lindsay.

The second draft cut the paramedics and began with a nurse who would not allow Dean to follow his friend. Defeated, he slumped into his seat in the waiting room, where we then met a new character, an abused meth-head who spotted him taking his anxiety meds and wanted in on the action, going so far as to offer sex in exchange for the pills. They ended up doing the deed in the bathroom stall, with the condom breaking and once again leaving evidence on his shoe for the male nurse to spot. Repeat revelation, this time with a question mark hanging over the encounter. It worked, but still had some gaps.

Enter third draft. Meth-head gets more personality and we find out that she might know Dean’s identity. Some adjustments to Dean’s behavior here as well, as his character development had created a man who might not act on such a temptation. The reader needed to understand why he might relapse in this situation, so I talked some about how the temptation made him snap and how that makes him look like the asshole that we saw in Chapter One. That guy would most definitely take up the girl on her offer.

This had the pleasant side-effect of making his revelation much more believable: once he’s snapped out of it, he recognizes what has happened and how close he is to spiraling out of control. This, at last, convinces him that he needs to change. It made much more sense than being ashamed of some random dude recognizing his transgressions, though the male nurse does still drive some of that recognition.

These changes seem relatively simple on the surface, but they represent a radical shift that necessitated a lot of thinking and rewriting, hence the long incubation period. Now I just need to add a few flourishes here and build on the chapter’s themes to put it to bed. Then we can move on to Chapter 17, which has a very interesting lead and is already in pretty good shape. I’ll talk more about that one in the coming weeks.

Old Time Religion

Speaking of revelations, it’s funny how these things sometimes happen. For example, a simple quirk of editing led to an interesting discussion in our critique group, one that prompted me to examine how Dean interacts with religion. In Chapter 5 (or maybe 6), my fellow readers noticed a throwaway line stating that Dean had been born into a Mormon family, which contradicted a later statement about his mother being a raging atheist. This happened because I had originally intended to implicate the Mormon upbringing in some of Dean’s damage, but in the end that opened a bigger can of worms than I could possibly address, so I instead went with a mother who viewed religion as a crutch for the weak and a spiritual father who didn’t dare discuss it openly in the home. This push and pull left young Dean with an intense longing for an authentic religious experience and left room for more nuance than the Mormon angle.

Trying to fill the hole in his heart, Dean chased different denominations throughout his youth, going so far as to attend churches with various schoolmates, many of whom were only too happy to woo a potential convert. This chase ended with him becoming close to this kid, Paul, and Paul’s dysfunctional family, who played a big role in an event that pushed Dean away from spirituality and toward a hedonistic, secular worldview.

The question of spirituality becomes unavoidable when Dean joins Sex Addicts Anonymous, as Twelve Step groups are almost inescapably associated with churches and spirituality. The biggest and most intimidating of these connections is the requirement to develop a relationship with a “power greater than yourself,” which unconsciously brings up painful reminders of that period in his life. As with the dynamic between his parents, Dean will eventually have to reconcile the push and pull between his own hedonistic worldview and the call of the Steps in fixing his life.

He’s not the only one wrestling with these issues, though; next week we’ll talk about Dean’s friend Goose, his early experiences with the church, and his angle on recovery

Question of the week

Now it’s time to get a little more interactive. This might seem silly and awkward at first as I try to find the right format, but hey – have to fall down a few times before you can walk, right? The idea is to start posing questions, answer them myself, and then hope to hear from you. Maybe we’ll find a natural format in the course of our conversations. For now, here’s this week’s question:

When you were little, who was your favorite superhero, and why?

You know, this seemed like an easy one, but it surprised me. Batman seemed like the obvious answer, as he was close to my heart, but Spider-Man edged him out by a hair.

Both were down-to-earth heroes, at least on some level, and I liked that. Sure, Spider-Man had superpowers while Batman relied on his physical prowess and mind, but Peter Parker always seemed a little more relatable. Sounds strange, but that mattered to me as a kid, though I don’t think I could have articulated it. I just knew that he had to deal with school, with girl problems, and with family – all things that I either dealt with myself or saw around me. Sure, Bruce Wayne had lost his parents, but that kind of tragedy was too heavy, too hard to get my young mind around. Batman also had the advantage of money while Peter fought for what he got outside of his superhero persona; I could relate to the latter far better as a poor kid.Oh, and let’s not forget that Peter was a photographer, a far cooler profession to me than billionaire playboy. Funny how that works, huh?

So how about you? I’m really curious to hear your answer, so please leave one in the comments.

Photo of the week

This week I’d like to honor of the snowstorm that’s just hit us and rewind to a photo taken just after Thanksgiving of 2014. Snapped this one when we climbed a mountain in the George Washington National Forest and hit a bend in the road beyond which our little sedan could not continue. We pulled over and I hopped out, camera in hand, to find this place just waiting for us. Could not have scripted it better.

And that does it for now. Next week I’ll tell you a little more about Chapter 17, Goose and religion, and pose another question. See you then.

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This Vanishing World

Welcome back for the next thrilling installment! Thanks for joining me again.

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Promo talk time. Maybe you recall me mentioning a Valentine’s Day Special last week? Well, starting on February 13th we (myself and the awesome ladies of Dark World Books) are running a special on Corridors of the Dead, Pathways of the Dead, and Room 3, with each priced at 99 cents until February 20th. My capable assistant Franny is handling the promotional details, but I should have more news in the next day or two.

Connection

Alright, I’ve told you why I walked away from things and what it means to be back. Let’s wrap this up with marketing talk. The most important promise I can make is that I won’t just shout at you. No more schemes, no more mindless broadcasting on Twitter, Tsu, or Facebook; the new focus is in-depth, targeted information about key themes, events, and locations in my life and stories, a means of connecting more deeply with you, the reader. This blog is “home base” for these efforts, though you can expect to see more on Facebook, Twitter, Tsu, and many other places in the coming months.

Right now I’m still in broadcast mode, but that changes next week, when I plan to post a question of the week and spur discussion by sharing my answer first. I don’t expect many answers for the first few months, but I hope that at some point you’ll participate, as together we – and hopefully that includes you – will figure out where this is all headed.

Might as Well Face It

It might seem odd to discuss love addiction when we’re so close to Valentine’s Day, but I think it’s appropriate. I know the very concept of love addiction sounds preposterous – straight out of that cheesy Robert Palmer song – but it exists, and I have seen its effects firsthand. It can be just as if not more insidious than its cousin, sex addiction, as it’s far more culturally accepted.

Think about it, songs, books, and movies are written about how we lose ourselves in the process of falling in love. I mean, hell, Valentine’s Day itself is built upon the notion of love transforming our mental state and making us do things that we wouldn’t normally do.

Now I could write a book on the difference between love the noun and love the verb, but all I’ll say here is that sometimes “falling in love” conceals flaws in our own thinking. Now imagine getting hooked on the sensation of falling in love rather than the object of your affection. What to do? A normal relationship only stays in that phase for so long, leaving you with the reality that neither of you are very perfect. Some people deal with this by trying to change and control their partner into being their fantasy lover; others pursue a never-ending string of new people. Both become an endless pursuit of some divine state that by its nature cannot be sustained.

This is love addiction.

And so we get to Lindsay, the recovering sex/love addict (they can coexist within one person) with whom Dean falls in love. Lindsay joined the recovery group after a series of disastrous liaisons with coworkers, culminating in one of them paying her for sex. Her behavior is viewed through the lens of sex addiction, but she did not see these as one-off encounters, rather a series of betrayals by people that she loved. These were acts of courtship, not titillation.

This backwards logic leads her to select Dean. It’s still unclear whether it’s a bad choice; they do genuinely have a lot in common and care for one another, but it will be a hard road for her.

The Mother and Child Reunion

Speaking of dysfunctional behavior, let’s turn our gaze to Dean and try to understand what created the egotistical, sex-driven beast that we encounter at the beginning of the novel. This early personality is the construct of a Dean who doesn’t truly understand himself. Much of it is due to a dark, suppressed secret that I will save for your first read through the novel, but his parents share in creating this false self.

Dean grew up in the shadow of an overbearing, alcoholic mother whose sole joy in life was dominating her weak-willed husband and vulnerable son. This turned his mother into a feared and loved icon, with his father inspiring a great deal of his anger and hate, all of which warped Dean’s view of women and relationships.He has only ever known relationships to be a surrendering of the man’s will to the woman’s whims. Commitment is surrender.

This attitude transforms him into a misogynist who only pursues unavailable or unsuitable women, projecting the blame for his shortcomings onto the female population. He’d marry, if only women weren’t so shallow. If they didn’t “friendzone” him. As far as he’s concerned, women only want money and/or status, and so he uses those to get the one thing that he wants – sex. Maybe one day that perfect woman will arrive, but until then he has no use for romance, as it’s only an excuse to put a leash on a man.

The good news is that this guy doesn’t stick around for long, as his attitude leads him to the brink of jail time and losing one of the few things he values: his license to practice dentistry. Life is forcing him to understand his flaws and break the cycle, a process which will span Books One and Two and drag him and Lindsay through hell and back.

Photo(s) of the week

Now for this week’s photo(s), which tie perfectly into the themes of what I’m coming to think of as the Shenandoah Valley series. This series is both borne of and a commentary upon my complicated relationship with rural America. I grew up in a small rural town, one that I both loved and wished to escape. Sound familiar? It was not an easy life, but even in the struggles I found untold rewards and riches. Even at a young age I recognized that the country offers so many untold stories, ones that lurk on dusty back roads and mountain ridges, tucked away from the prying eyes of the outside world.

I realized a few years ago that this secret world is vanishing as the ultra-rich take the spots once occupied by hard-working, blue collar folks like my family. Obviously I don’t have the power to stop this change, but I can document what remains while it’s still possible. So my wife and I ride the backroads, searching of signs of that vanishing world and its decay, hoping to capture what’s left before it gets bulldozed for another McMansion.

In that spirit, I’ve chosen two pictures this week, both of which represent this vanishing world. The first appears to be a decaying restaurant or service station that lies at the intersection of two relatively well-groomed roads, surrounded by a growing cluster of McMansions. I give it a year, maybe two at the most before it’s gone.

The second is an old farmhouse that’s hidden down an old dirt road in a place not likely to be gentrified for quite some time. This building is truly something special, a structure that should be preserved for history, not left to rot. It appears to have started as an old stone house, likely sometime in the 1800s; over the years its residents added a wooden attic, later tacking and on the white facade. This place had a powerful, ancient feel to it – very creepy and foreboding, the kind of place populated by uneasy ghosts rather than harried exurbanites. I wish I could put you there with me, but for now, I hope the pictures suffice.

And that will be it for this week. Next time, expect a proper status update on the novel, a talk about Dean and religion, and the first question for an interactive discussion.

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A Warm Welcome Back

Welcome back to Shaggin the Muse! Before I get started, let me say thanks to my ever-helpful, ever-wise assistant Franny for the gentle push back to promotional work. I also can’t forget her partner-in-crime, the talented Silvia,who put together the overhaul of this site. They both run Dark World Books, and I can’t recommend them enough for what they’ve done in putting the wheels back on this jalopy and pushing it back out into oncoming traffic.

Walking Away

I admit it: it’s been awhile since my last post. The truth is that I walked away for some time and didn’t know if I’d continue to support this side of my career. Why? Well, a combination of factors, really, some embarrassing, some well-founded. It started with a Halloween short story contest, strangely enough. A small community of self-publishers held the contest and I figured why not, try to pump up readership a little and have some fun. Deadline was four weeks, no exceptions, and I worked pretty hard, banging out an outline and  three drafts.

Now granted, it’s difficult to judge your own work, but I feel I do okay in spotting flaws and being objective about them. I didn’t write the perfect story, but I thought I had a solid contender, something that would entertain and garner some votes.

That impression stood up when I read the other stories. The winner seemed obvious to me, with a few others ranking higher than my own story, but I still felt good about my chances.

Imagine my surprise when winners were announced and the story that I felt to be the clear winner didn’t even place. Oh, and my story didn’t get a single vote, falling below stories notable for their stilted dialogue, copious misspellings, and nonsensical conclusions.

Rather than focus on the mechanics of the vote (my story had been the last in a long line and didn’t get read by many) and the tastes of that particular audience, I went into a tailspin. This – along with an ill-timed “cyber-bullying” incident – meant that I didn’t understand good horror/dark fantasy. I didn’t see the point in continuing down that road. Don’t think pity party, though, rather a conviction that the heart of my writing lay elsewhere. In retrospect I had been leaning that way for quite some time, this just served as a convenient catalyst.

It seems ridiculous now, but I don’t regret it. It’s driven me to write Came to Believe, a novel that has transformed my view of authorship as a way of reaching for inner truth.

Drugs and the Process

2014 might best be described as a hot steaming mess, but, as you can surmise, I’ve been hard at work on the novel and am up to Chapter 16 on something that may resemble a third draft. It’s difficult to define such things, as I’ve restarted the novel with a different perspective and overhauled my process in order to turn out more polished passes.

Quick synopsis: Came to Believe tells the story of a sex-addicted small-town dentist whose life changes when he’s caught with a prostitute in a public park. While waiting for his hearing, he meets a male prostitute and drug dealer who clues him in to what sex addiction is about and how to use rehab to avoid jail time. Dean wants in on it, so he joins the redneck in going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. These meetings begin the slow process of change in Dean, introducing him to both his sponsor and Lindsay, a fellow addict who will be very important to him. Bear with me, I’m still workshopping the synopsis, but the tag line is “Sex, Drugs, and Dentistry.”

Anyway, a little about the new process. It starts with the first “draft”, or pass, of a given chapter, one in which I reserve the right to suck out loud. I focus on writing to the outline, using chunks of dialogue and narrative to form a “bridge” across the story’s river, which aids in avoiding those blank page heebie jeebies. I also maintain a rolling outline with these first passes, one that doesn’t venture much more than five chapters ahead of the current chapter. This makes it easier to anticipate any curves and stay on target with the narrative.

Once the first pass is knocked out, I take to paper again. This phase is a ten-minute free write summarizing what happened in the first draft, noting any deficiencies in the narrative and structure, and focusing on what needs to be fleshed out. For example, the first pass of Chapter 16 featured a young mother who did little more than make Dean self-conscious. Recognizing a need for a more compelling conflict, I transformed her into a meth addict who will have a profound impact on his life and Book 2.

These notes form the basis for the second pass, which I will discuss next week.

Some folks have asked me what I know about sex addiction, that is, what qualifies me to talk about this guy and his experiences? No, I’m not a sex addict, but I have lived with one and interacted with quite a few others. One in particular had a huge impact on my life, both good and bad, though I won’t name them or share details out of respect for their privacy. As a partner of a sex addict, I did my time in “the rooms,” as they call the locations of these recovery groups. It was there that I met a lot of wonderful people who changed my views and informed much of this novel. Difficult times, but ones that I would not change for anything, as those years have shaped me.

I’ll try to talk about some of these experiences as time goes on.

First, let’s talk about Dean’s slip back into drug addiction. His drug of choice is the anti-anxiety medication Ativan, to which he formed a physical dependence in college. He found it quite useful to control his fears during tests and make him a more polished public speaker, but he dumped it when he found it starting to rule his life. The aforementioned drug dealer pulls him back into the drug’s orbit when he observes Dean’s uptight nature and gives him a free sample.

I came into the book knowing that Dean favored a drug. In the initial pass it was laughing gas, which makes sense for a dentist but became impractical outside of his office. So, I thought, why not Ativan? I had taken it for my fear of flying and nearly experienced an “overdose” during a particularly terrifying flight. I had also spoken to former addicts who had gone through the crippling withdrawal, so it seemed to be in my wheelhouse and especially apt for an addict who sought to blot out his emotions. It leads him down quite the dark path in the back half of the novel.

This sets the stage for the next blog post, in which I’ll talk about the history of the drug, its side effects, and the hellish withdrawal.

That about does it for this week. Keep an eye out for the next post, when I’ll talk more about the process of writing Chapter 16 and its implications for the sequel, my writing process, and the aforementioned Ativan information.

Oh, and one last thing. I’m not sure if I mentioned it in the past, but I’m something of an amateur photographer, specifically scenery. My goal is to communicate a sense of…well, here’s how I’ve explained it: you know that feeling you get on a cold, foggy night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket and hear the sound of a lonesome train whistle in the distance? That’s the feeling I’m trying to capture. Hopefully this one, taken at an anonymous railroad crossing in the mountains west of the DC Metro area, does it for you. See you next time!

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